Former North standout coaching at Georgia Southern
SALISBURY — North Rowan graduate Larry Dixon still remembers the day the college coaching door cracked open for him because it may have been the tiniest crack in history.
Dixon played his college basketball at Johnson C. Smith, and he got a call from a former opponent — Livingstone 3-point bomber Stacey Palmore, who was an assistant at Western Carolina.
“Stacey told me St. Andrews was going to call and offer me an assistant’s job and that I had to take it,” Dixon said. “They did call and I did take it.”
That fateful phone call came back in 2001 when Dixon was a rising star in the prep coaching ranks. He’d just piloted Charlotte’s Garinger High to 21 wins and a 4A regional appearance and was the toast of Charlotte. He was the Mecklenburg County Coach of the Year.
But he also had seen enough to believe he could be an effective college coach.
“At Garinger, we had players good enough to be recruited and I’d watched the guys who came in to recruit them,” Dixon said. “I knew I could do that, knew I’d be good at that. The down side was I was making about $40,000 at Garinger and I took a job at St. Andrews where I was going to be making $14,000. My mom told me I was crazy. I told her God takes care of babies and fools.”
Someone has taken care of Dixon since then. He’s always supported his family as a basketball coach.
He’d only been at St. Andrews eight months when he had a chance to move up to Division I South Carolina State. After two years at S.C. State, he headed to East Carolina for another two-year stay.
Next was Winthrop for five seasons, the best years Dixon has experienced. Winthrop won Big South tournaments in 2008 and 2010, and that meant free tickets to March Madness.
But when Winthrop fired head coach Randy Peele after the 2011-12 season, his assistant coaches also were out of work and searching for new employers.
“I had college offers, but they were offers way off,” Dixon said. “I was going through a divorce and I needed to stay close to my kids.”
Dixon’s son Devin is now a senior honor student at Olympic High in Charlotte. His daughter Leah is “9 going on 29.”
Dixon coached high school ball in York, S.C., last season to stay close to his family.
But in late March, 2013, Mark Byington was hired as Georgia Southern’s head coach. Byington had spent many years at College of Charleston and knew Dixon was tough to beat for recruits. Byington wanted Dixon on his staff, and now Dixon and Peele both aid Byington at Georgia Southern in Statesboro.
“It’s definitely a football school,” Dixon said. “But the support for the basketball program is unbelievable. It’s a college town, a lot like East Carolina was, right down to the water tower. It’s an exciting time there. We’re changing conferences next season, from the Southern to the Sun Belt.”
The 6-foot-6 Dixon has inched past 40. Like most good assistant coaches, he aspires to be a program-runner. His goal is to be a head coach.
“My last two jobs I’ve had a lot more input as far as strategies,” Dixon said. “I’ve kind of gotten a reputation as a good recruiter, but don’t want to be labeled as a recruiter. Scouting, player development (he works with Georgia Southern’s big men) and game strategy are all important parts of being an assistant coach. I try to be well-rounded and I still believe if you keep working, keep doing a good job, keep paying your dues, your time will come.”
That’s how it went for Dixon as a player at North Rowan. He wasn’t on the varsity until he was a junior.
“I kept telling Coach (Bob) Hundley that I was good and I should be playing,” Dixon said. “But I was probably better in my own mind than I actually was.”
Dixon averaged 11.4 ppg. as a junior on a team that featured prolific scorers Brian Paige and Chris Sifford. Paige scored a school-record 50 one night against North Stanly.
As a senior, Dixon was the man on a team that also included Mike White and Josh Mills. Dixon scored 510 points and averaged 20.4 ppg. He accounted for one of only 10 500-point seasons in North history.
Dixon signed with Johnson C. Smith, mostly because of a J.C. Smith assistant coach named Andrew Mitchell, who had starred at North and who now coaches the Cavaliers.
“I signed late,” Dixon said. “Andrew helped me out. I thought I was going to go higher, but it was a good fit. J.C. Smith was close to home and I was comfortable there. But Coach (Robert) Steele and Coach (Roger) Secreast had been on me to hit the weight room hard, and I found that out that was true.”
Dixon had to get stronger and had to change his game dramatically to succeed in college.
“I could score, but we had guys that could really score — I played with three of the top five scorers in J.C. Smith history,” Dixon said. “If I wanted to get on the court, I had to be a defensive stopper.”
Dixon was the Golden Bulls’ most improved player as a junior and their outstanding defender as a senior.
“I was blessed with great teammates,” Dixon said. “We had very good teams, I made lifelong friends, and I got a degree. That was the main thing.”
His first chance to coach came at South Rowan High. Dr. Alan King hired him to assist Bob Parker and Sifford, Dixon’s former teammate. Dixon then moved on to Winston-Salem Carver. His first head-coaching opportunity at Garinger followed. Then came that phone call from St. Andrews.
Dixon was in town Wednesday for the funeral of an uncle, but he’ll be back in Statesboro tonight for a game with Furman. Georgia Southern plays at App State Saturday, so he’ll be in Boone for a 2 p.m. tipoff. Then he’ll drive to North Rowan to watch the Cavaliers entertain Winston-Salem Prep on Saturday night.
Winston-Salem Prep’s 6-4 guard Mike Hughes is one of five recruits Dixon helped land this season. Dixon and Byington both will be eye-balling Hughes closely.
“I’m still a Cavalier at heart, but I hope Hughes plays well,” Dixon said with a laugh. “The boss is coming to see him, and you don’t want the boss giving you that what-the-heck-were-you-thinking look.”
Dixon has managed to keep his sense of humor after more than a decade of life on the road.
“An assistant coach’s life is crazy, and it’s true most people don’t realize the background work we do,” Dixon said. “But I love basketball, I love the kids, and it’s not a bad life. There are a lot worse things I could be doing.”